It has become a tradition for the annual festival of rediscovered and restored films, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, Italy to focus one of its “Time Machine” programs on films from 100 years ago. With so many sections of programming on offer – almost 20 this year – and with as many as seven venues simultaneously presenting work, it is sometimes impossible to choose what to attend, knowing that one will miss something that was an absolute “must see.” As usual, I decided to focus on the silent films, knowing that most would be shown on 35mm prints. Inevitably, this meant spending a lot of time in the Sala Mastroianni, one of the screening rooms of the Cineteca Bologna (cinematheque), where they also featured the Musidora retrospective, and films from 1899, “Year Four of Cinematography.”

The Cineteca’s plaza, which is adjacent to the Salas Mastroianni and Scorsese, and named the Piazetta Pasolini for this event, was again the site of three nighttime, open-air screenings of silent films, utilising a carbon arc projector, all of which I enjoyed attending. The first of these matched Soleil et ombre (Sun and Shadow, 1922), an interesting reduced-length (43 minute) feature film co-directed and written by Musidora, and starring herself in two rival roles, with an 8 minute fragment of La fête espagnole (The Spanish Fiesta, 1919), directed by Germaine Dulac, and based on a “stream-of-consciousness” script by Louis Delluc, a film which had been termed the very first “impressionist” film by George Sadoul in 1927. The fragment consists of two dance sequences, featuring Delluc’s wife, Ève Francis, along with a few establishing shots of a Spanish village, and the film’s final shot (apparently). Interestingly, it was filmed entirely on location in Spain, and although one cannot be sure of this, when only a tiny part of a film survives, it has the flavor of a documentary.

The two programmers of “A Hundred Years Ago” (Cento anni fa), Mariann Lewinsky and Karl Wratschko deliberately avoided showing films in their series that are both “widely known” and considered to be in the “canon,” such as Blind Husbands by Erich von Stroheim, J’accuse by Abel Gance, Madame Dubarry by Ernst Lubitsch, and D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (USA), although they did include acclaimed feature films directed by Carl Th. Dreyer in Denmark (his first), and Mauritz Stiller in Sweden, because they had decided to focus on Scandinavia as well as Germany, in recognising that “the most interesting films were made there.”1 The first screening in the series was a 35mm print of Albert Capellani’s orientalist film, The Red Lantern, not one of the director’s best works, but shown more as a tribute to its star, Alla Nazimova, along with her screen test, which had been included with a number of other extras on a DVD release by the Belgian Cinematek in 2012 (accompanying a booklet, To Dazzle the Eye and Stir the Heart – The Red Lantern, Nazimova and the Bozer Rebellion).

Lewinsky and Wratschko wanted to “give an impression of what a cinema show looked like in 1919 and to give a more complete idea of the scope of film production,”2 by including newsreels, advertising films, and educational films, with the second program in the series doing just this. Two French newsreel episodes – on a motorised scooter, and women playing football, Rencontre des sociétés sportives Femina et Academia – a fragment of La paix, where pages of a peace document are turned by a woman’s hand, and a lovely five minute stencil colored, non-fiction short, Épanouissement de quelques fleurs, directed by Émile Labrély and Jean Comandon, both on 35 mm prints, along with a four minute “home movie” of the signing of the United Artists Contract of Incorporation on DCP, with Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford performing comic stunts and gestures after shaking hands with D.W. Griffith, precede the screening of the feature film, Dreyer’s Præsidenten (The President). The restoration of The President had been conducted in 199899 by the Danske Filminstitut, most importantly to reconstruct the original tinting and toning.  Dealing as it does with the exploitation of women by men of a higher social standing, and how men are always in positions of authority over women, and judging them harshly, especially over conceiving children illegitimately, the subject matter of the film has held up really well over time. And although the colours used are initially fairly predictable, the appearance of red tinting to highlight flares carried during a nighttime celebration, and dark green toning and amber tinting during a courtroom scene are very effective, and are a marked improvement over the DVD that had been published by the Danish Film Institute in 2005, where colours spill over into light areas.

The President (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1919)

One of the biggest discoveries of the festival occurred on the Monday (June 24), with the screening of La maschera e il volto (The Mask and the Face), directed by Augusto Genina, and shown on a 35mm print with Spanish intertitles, which had been copied from a nitrate print found in Mexico. In his introduction, Andrea Meneghelli highlighted the grotesque comedy of the work being closely related to Pirandello. Decidedly unromantic in its view of extra-marital affairs conducted by members of the Italian upper-middle class, The Mask and the Face amusingly returns often to a motif of an American couple boating on Lake Como, who are perpetually embracing and whose romantic allure is seen in juxtaposition to the melodramatic excess of the Italian affairs. Perhaps, the model of “romance” in US films was already understood to be unrealistic in its idealism to European film audiences. Savina Gracia (Italia Almirante Manzini) flees her husband, Paulo (Vittorio Rossi Pianelli), with her lover, after which Paulo not only threatens to kill his wife, but pretends to do so. Amazingly, when he confesses to murder, the film illustrates his story, including throwing Savina’s body into the lake, surely the very first example of a film visualising a lie. When a woman’s body is recovered from the lake, it is assumed to be hers, but with his lawyer toasting the husband’s honour at a banquet –Paulo had been acquitted for doing the right thing – she reveals herself, having been close by and observing the farcical proceedings.

Between 1916 and 1919, nine feature films were produced in Norway by Peter Lykke-Seest, but only one survives, Historien om en Gut (The Story of a Boy), shot in 1918 and released in April, 1919. It was also directed by Lykke-Seest. According to Erik Frisvold Hanssen, who introduced the film, this was the first “proper film” era in Norway’s history, when they concentrated on contemporary urban stories, mostly set in Oslo (then called Christiana). Later, in the 1920s, Norwegian films became more “national” and rural; “landscape” films, inspired by Swedish art history, literature and cinema. The boy of the title was the 13-year-old son of the producer, Esben. His character (also named Esben) is falsely accused of stealing a watch, so he escapes to the countryside. An incomplete nitrate print was discovered in Prague during the 1980s, from which a 35mm print was made, and what survives is believed to be about 70% of the original. Unfortunately Esben’s escape is missing, including a scene where he sleeps in the woods. He is very resourceful, trading his coat for some food, and he is, of course, absolved from blame at the end.

Sir Arne’s Treasure (Mauritz Stiller, 1919)

The other two Scandinavian films on view from 1919 were both directed by Stiller. I have seen Herr Arnes Pengar: En Vinterballad i 5 Akter (Sir Arne’s Treasure) many times, and it has long been my favourite silent Swedish film, so it was great to see a new restoration, albeit on DCP rather than 35mm. Five different prints were consulted for tinting and toning, including a Dutch intertitled nitrate print from the Deutsche Kinemathek and a black and white nitrate reference print with Swedish intertitles. “Sections were also taken from two safety elements from earlier preservations where the original nitrate sources are now lost. The digital restoration [2017] includes scenes and additional frames missing from previous restored versions of the film.”3 Indeed, this is the most sparklingly clear copy of Sir Arne’s Treasure that I have seen, and the colours of the DCP are very effective, especially the combination of pink tinting and sepia toning for some shots of the victimised young woman, Elsalil. And, the diagonally composed, green-tinted shots on the ice where women come to the stranded ship to collect her body, comprise one of the most moving scenes in silent film history, and clearly influenced Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan Groznyy (Ivan the Terrible, Part 1, 1944). I had also seen Sangen om den Eldröda Blomman (Song of the Scarlet Flower), before but I attended the special screening in the Ritrovati e Restaurati (Recovered and Restored) series at the Cinema Arlecchino on Tuesday, June 25, because the DCP was graced with an orchestral score, composed by Armas Järnefelt, the most famous Finnish composer after Sibelius. According to Wengström, Song of the Scarlet Flower is “the only Swedish silent film for which an original score exists.”4 The score had been performed by the Gävle Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jaako Kuuisto, and hopefully this version of the film will appear on DVD/blu-ray in the not-too-distant future.

The sole surviving film of Ruth Stonehouse as a director, Rosalind at Redgate, was cross-listed as a “Recovered and Restored” work and a film from 1919. Unfortunately only 25 minutes of the five-reel film survives, and the 35mm copy that was shown had been copied from a nitrate print held by Svenska Filminstitutet. But for me, the most exciting discovery in the series was of two, two-minute fragments of F.W. Murnau’s second film as a director, Satanas. This was a three-part film, and both fragments are from the first part, “The Tyrant”, set in ancient Egypt, which may have been released in 1919. One segment survived in Japan as a header for another German film, directed by Joe May, and reveals a typically intense Conrad Veidt staring at the camera, while revealing mysterious dark sets in the background, while the other consists of two different takes of a Pharaoah lying down with a semi-naked women lying on top of him, and moving her hand down his body suggestively. Presumably these shots have survived because they were cut out of a censored Spanish print of Satanas.

1919 was a unique year for German cinema because there was no censorship whatsoever. In his passionate introduction to Richard Oswald’s Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), Jay Weissberg noted this fact, and complained that, apart from experimental films from the 1950s, this was the only openly gay film made in the world for almost 50 years! A fragment was discovered in 1979, and eventually some 50 minutes (at 18 frames per second) of the much-longer feature had been restored by UCLA and released on 35mm by Frame Line in San Francisco. Unfortunately what remains of the film is very static; mostly talking heads. But as Karl Wratschko states in his notes, Different from the Others “argues vehemently that homophobia and not homosexuality, is the real scourge of society,” and this approach still comes across very strongly in the surviving version.5 The most surprising rediscovery of the Ritrovato for me, was Tötet Nicht Mehr! (Misericordia) by Lupu Pick. According to Wratschko’s introduction, the 35mm print that was shown on 25 June, which ran for 127 minutes (at 18fps) is the last print to be struck by the Bundesarchiv – very disturbing news, especially because we also learned that the CNC in France has also stopped making 35mm prints of its collection; these major national archives can not afford the processing costs! Like Oswald’s film, Misericordia could not have been made after 1919 because of its politics – it is against the death penalty. Indeed, the film has not been shown publicly anywhere in the world since the 1920s. The script, co-written by the left-leaning Gerhardt Lamprecht with Pick, translates as “Don’t Kill Anyone.” Appearing as it did before Caligari, Misericordia is strikingly realist in its art direction, cinematography and acting, with many scenes composed in depth, and where open doorways link characters and closed doors and walls, separate them. Pick himself played a classical violinist, Eric Paulsson who kills a Cossack officer in revenge for his son being killed at a poetry reading, leading to a dilemma for the state prosecutor, Brückner, a staunch supporter of the death penalty. Paulsson’s daughter falls in love with Brückner’s son, who then commits a murderous “crime of passion” himself, in a fight with her rapist.

Misericordia (Lupu Pick, 1919)

The third feature included in the section entitled, “Censorship Abolished. German ‘Vice and Enlightenment Films’”, Der Mädchenhirt (The Pimp), directed by Karl Grune, perfectly fits the “vice” category. Another surprisingly “realist” work from 1919, it was mostly filmed on location in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and was Grune’s first film as a director. Designated “adults only,’ Der Mädchenhirt, which directly translates as “shepherd of girls,” was co-written by Grune and his wife-to-be, Beate Schach, based on Egon Erwin Kisch’s reportage of the youth culture’s underside. Although it is not as accomplished as Misericordia, Der Mädchenhirt is remarkable for its depiction of governmental corruption in prostitution and other crimes, and with its complex compositional strategies, especially of scenes set on the Vitava River bank.

Of the films that I had seen before and couldn’t find the time to see again at the festival, one of the most interesting is Jön az Öcsém (My Brother is Coming), directed by Mihály Kertész (Michael Curtiz). At the time when I had seen it, in 1996, at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, My Brother is Coming was the only surviving Hungarian film directed by Curtiz, and then as now it seemed so surprising because it is both a “red” film, made during the very brief Hungarian socialist era, and extremely poetic, in its use of red tinting (for blood and politics), along with heroic low-angled shots, the use of metaphor, and its mass character, all prefiguring later Soviet films. A second title, Back to God’s Country, directed by David Hartford, and starring Nell Shipman, is far and away the finest Canadian silent film, and is slowly gaining a reputation as being way ahead of its time, both in featuring a female protagonist who drives the narrative intellectually and in her actions – not just as an emotional heroine – and a film that also works against racial stereotypes, of indigenous people and French Canadians. When I recently showed the film during Concordia University’s undergraduate Canadian Film course, students were surprised by how modern it seems. Based on a story written by James Oliver Curwood, Wapi the Walrus, where the protagonist is a dog, Shipman reworked the script so that her character became more central, while maintaining her close connection with nature and mutual love of animals. In the film’s most remarkable scene, she pilots a dog sled across Alberta’s lake ice to save her injured husband and defeat the villains.

*          *          *

Following on the example of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s annual review of films from 90 years ago, I propose my list of the ten best films from 100 years ago, 1919. So many silent films have been lost but it is amazing how rediscoveries keep being made. Indeed, I would include at least four of the films shown in Bologna, including three forward-looking works, Dreyer’s The President, Pick’s Misericordia, and Shipman’s Back to God’s Country, along with Stiller’s Sir Arne’s Treasure. Interestingly, in the catalogue, Lewinsky claimed that “the most important achievement of the last century” was the “progress made towards equal civil rights for women,” and she placed Dreyer’s film in the category of the “New,” whereas she included the Stiller-directed film in the category of the “Old film narrative” where women were traditionally “victim heroines.”6

Also from Sweden, I would include Victor Sjöström’s Ingmarssönerna (The Sons of Ingmar), where Sjöström also plays the central roll, and which has great looking cinematography (Julius Jaenzon) and art direction (Axel Esbensen), and typically for many of the best Swedish films is based on a novel by the first female Nobel prize winning author (1909), Selma Lagerlöf, but which atypically is somewhat whimsical, with Sjöström’s character (Lill Ingmar Ingmarsson) imagining heaven, where he meets up with all of his Ingmar male ancestors.

Although it was made in 1919, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari wasn’t released until February 27, 1920 (and will presumably make next year’s list). But, there were many excellent films released in Germany in 1919, including two by Ernst Lubitsch (apart from Madame Dubarry), Die Puppe (The Doll), which imaginatively employs animation, and where both the sets and the actors are artificially toy-like – it is as if the whole film takes place in a doll-house – and my favourite, Die Austerprinzessin (The Oyster Princess). Ossi Oswalda is sensational in both titular roles, and here her dynamic excess is reminiscent of French comediennes such as Rosalie and Léontine (c. 1910), while the near-orgiastic overabundance of servants, seen in depth, in geometric patterning may have been an influence on Busby Berkeley in the 1930s! It is arguably Lubitsch’s funniest pre-Hollywood film. While The Oyster Princess’s proto-feminism fits Lewinsky’s “New” category of 20th century film, many of the better German films of the time now look to be decidedly “orientalist” and “Old” in their perspectives. These include a feature film directed by Robert Reinhert, which was “rediscovered” by the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy (1997), Opium, and the first episode, Der Goldene See (The Golden Lake) of an unfinished serial, Die Spinnen (The Spiders), directed by Fritz Lang. Clearly influenced by Joe May films that Lang had written, being full of mystery from the beginning, The Spiders is remarkable for its extensive use of cross-cutting to add suspense and plot complications, and in forging expressive divisions between above and below ground levels, including the use of television screens to view downstairs actions. Moving walls, trap doors and lifts abound. In her book on the director, Eisner quotes Lang in saying “I simply wanted to film adventurous subjects… I loved everything that was exuberant and exotic.”7

Tih Minh (Louis Feuillade, 1919)

I confess that I have never watched all of Abel Gance’s J’accuse, a film that would probably appear on most people’s best films of 1919 list, but I was very fortunate to able to see all 12 parts of Louis Feuillade’s serial, Tih Minh, when David Bordwell programmed it at the University of Madison, Wisconsin in 2005, to accompany a conference mounted to celebrate his academic career. Although the Laotian heroine, Tih Minh (Mary Harald) and her husband, Jacques d’Athys (René Cresté) are pursued throughout by criminals, with its Nice setting in the South of France and its beautiful landscapes, Tih Minh feels much more optimistic than Feuillade’s earlier serials. As Bordwell himself posted at the end of 2009, it is a “zestful tale of good people who come to a good end.”8

After a tremendous period from 1913 to 1918, when the Classical Hollywood Style was rapidly being developed and refined, 1919 seems like the year when stylistic advances in US filmmaking briefly paused. Douglas Fairbanks was arguably the most important figure in encouraging cutting on movement – to keep up with his acrobatics – and the average shot length (ASL) of the 18 (of 19) films in which he starred declined from 6 seconds in 1915 to an astounding 4 seconds at the end of 1917, while there was no appreciable decline in a sample of other films measured by Barry Salt over the same period (approximately 8 seconds or more). Fairbanks’ When the Clouds Roll By, directed by Victor Fleming, represents the pinnacle of his achievement, before he became self-conscious of his notoriety and hence made longer and more expensive films, while continuing at United Artists. As with all of his light, action comedies, Fairbanks provides a certain amount of satire, and here it is of the gaining popularity of Freudian psychology and psychiatry, while his character is highly superstitious. When William K. Everson introduced the screening of his own 16mm print at NYU in 1978, he suggested that while it is possible to cut Fairbanks’ Thief of Bagdad (1924, Raoul Walsh) down to 30 minutes from 14 reels, it is impossible to cut this one from six reels.

I must also place D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Suzie in my top ten. Very old-fashioned, Victorian, even in its small town Americana subject matter, where Suzie (Lillian Gish) is the long suffering neighbor of William (Bobby Harron) who is supposed to be marrying someone else, it is extremely advanced in its editing schemes, especially to connect Suzie and William, emotionally, psychologically and through their glances, initially hers, but eventually his, also. After Intolerance (1916), it is my favourite Griffith feature film. If I were to stretch my list to an eleventh title, I would include the Mexican serial, El automóvil gris (The Grey Automobile), directed by Enrique Rosas, especially because it has recently been restored to its original silent version by the Cineteca Nacional and released on two blu-ray discs. Extremely unusual in being based from journalistic accounts on a true story of a gang of criminals who robbed wealthy residents, El automóvil gris was also filmed on actual locations, and featured some of the individuals involved. Shockingly, the serial concluded with actuality footage of the executions filmed by Rosas, himself.

Endnotes:

  1. See Gian Luca Farinelli, Mariann Lewinsky, Cecilia Cenciarelli and Ehsan Khoshbakht (eds.), Il Cinema Ritrovato: Bologna 22-30 giugno 2019, festival catalogue (Bologna, Italy: Cineteca Bologna, 2019), p. 33.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Jon Wengströn, ibid., p. 39.
  4. Ibid., p. 196.
  5. Ibid., p. 41.
  6. Ibid., p. 34.
  7. Lotte Eisner, Fritz Lang (London: Martin Secker & Warburg, Ltd., 1976), p. 32.
  8. David Bordwell, “The ten-plus best films of… 1919,” Observations on Film Art (December 30, 2009), http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2009/12/30/the-ten-plus-best-films-of-1919/

About The Author

Peter Rist teaches film studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Québec, and writes regularly for www.offscreen.com.